UnIP (UnIntellectual Property): Copyright for Common Gangster Phrases

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of Defendants’ motion to dismiss a copyright infringement lawsuit stemming from Plaintiff’s allegations that Defendant, Curtis Jackson (better known as 50 Cent), copied portions of its book, The Preacher’s Son—But the Streets Turned Me into a Gangster, in the Before I Self–Destruct album/CD, featuring songs and lyrics written by Jackson; and his companion film of the same name, which Jackson wrote, starred in, and directed.  Plaintiff’s Complaint explained that his book, which he dictated, “describes the notoriety, power, and the money that [he] enjoyed as a gangster….”  Among the allegedly copied items at issue were short phrases, including:

“Get the dope, cut this dope”

“let’s keep it popping”

“I said the strong takes from the weak, but the smart takes from everybody”

In a scene from Jackson’s film a song playing in the background includes these lyrics: “Get the dope, cut the dope, get the dope. Let’s get it popping. The strong sit down, but the weak work for me.”

The Court held that: “No copyright violation occurs where works depict gang life in inner-city New Jersey, characters spending time in jail, obtaining money through criminal activity, shoot-outs, murder, and the loss of a parent.”  In doing so, it found that the above phrases and others are “common in general or common with respect to hip hop culture, and do not enjoy copyright protection.”

This case again shows that copyright protection for common or unoriginal phrases is unlikely.  Even where there is access to the work, and arguably exact copying, a plaintiff must still establish a protectable copyright.  It probably did not help that the Plaintiff was pro se.  A copyright attorney may have been able to handle differently, and a different result may have occurred.  As it is, 50 Cent will “keep it popping” and the Plaintiff will likely believe that he is merely taking from everybody!

Winstead v. Jackson, 11-3771, 2013 WL 139622 (3d Cir. Jan. 11, 2013)


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